How Climate Change Might Affect Your Lung Health

'Tis the season when it seems everyone and their auntie has a wet cough that won't go away. But before you chalk it up to just another virus or bacterial infection, a new article published in Annals of Internal Medicine implores you to consider that your symptoms may be caused by a fungal lung infection that has reached your local area with the help of global warming.

The article — written by Dr. George Thompson, a professor and infectious disease specialist at the University of California, and Dr. Tom Chiller of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — explains that cases of histoplasmosis, blastomycosis, and coccidioidomycosis — three fungal diseases that take up residence in the lungs — are expanding to areas of the country where they have never been seen before (per U.S. News & World Report).

These fungal species, whose spores dwell in soil and can be inhaled into the lungs, aren't new. However, they were once confined to specific areas of the country which were deemed regional "hot spots." That is no longer the case, as Dr. Thompson notes that more than 10% of these infections are occurring outside of their normal locations.

A case of mistaken identity

Coccidioidomycosis — commonly referred to as Valley fever — is caused by the fungus Coccidioides, which has been known to exist in the soil of the Southwestern United States, as well as parts of Mexico, South America, and Central America (per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Recently, however, cases have been emerging in Washington State. Similarly, cases of Histoplasmosis, which were once only found in the Midwest and Eastern States, have begun popping up in other parts of the country as well (per U.S. News & World Report).

Thompson and Chiller explain that the full range of these fungal infections, as well as the number of cases, is hard to pinpoint as many people are likely going undiagnosed — even in areas where they typically occur. "These diseases are thought of as being rare — wrongly," said Thompson. Because they are deemed rare, and because they also present similarly to other viral and bacterial respiratory infections like COVID and the flu, doctors are not testing for these fungal infections and the infections usually clear up on their own, with no one any the wiser.

The reason for the spread remains unclear, but U.S. News & World Report says that both doctors point to climate change as a likely reason for it, with rainfall and soil conditions changing in ways that allow for the specific infectious fungi to thrive.